Monday, October 24, 2016

Hazel: The Early Years: Prelude to Hazel (Come Back, Little Sheba)

As I prepared to sit down with a cold beer, a plate of nachos, and the first season DVD set of Hazel--you know, a typical weekend night for a red-blooded American adult male--it struck me that while I had seen most episodes of Shirley Booth's sitcom, I had never seen her most notable pre-TV performance. So I ran right out and got a copy of the film for which she won an Academy Award (a real one, too--Best Actress!): 1952's Come Back Little Sheba.

The beer got warm and the nachos got cold, but it was worth it to finally check out the pre-Hazel Burke incarnation of Booth. Let's take a look at this movie before we dive into Hazel.

As Lola Delaney, Shirley is a little frumpier and a lot less sassy than Hazel Burke. She's about 10 years younger, but let's face it, a young Shirley Booth looks an awful  lot like any other Shirley Booth. And now I will stop making comparisons to the TV show.

Not the glamour queen/domestic goddess we'd see later in the Screen Gems sitcom

After all, this film is an A-list effort from Paramount.  In addition to Booth and Burt Lancaster as her husband, alcoholoic chiropractor "Doc" Delaney, look at all the talent behind the camera: Hal Wallis is Executive Producer, Franz Waxman does the score, James Wong Howe is cinematographer, William Inge wrote the play the movie was adapted from, and even Edith Head did the costumes! The film was nominated for a few other Oscars, as well, including for best editing. Director Daniel Mann made his cinematic debut here, but Wallis surrounded him with all kinds of talent.

The Delaneys are an aging married couple with zero sparks in their romantic life. There seems to be little intimacy in their relationship. He calls her "Baby," and she calls him "Mr. B"--OK, NOW I'm done with the Hazel references. She actually calls him "Doc," but their "pet names" seem more like barriers than signifiers of any true affection.

We soon learn that Doc is a recovering alcoholic, sober for one year, and we learn this because Lola can't stop flapping her gums about it. It's kind of pitiful, though; she has a strong degree of affection for him and genuinely cares about him despite the terrible things drinking does to him, but we also learn why they got married in the first place. Suffice to say it wasn't a storybook romance.

Lola talks up Doc big time and is proud of his progress in sobriety, as well as his professional standing, but Doc is more indulgent than anything. Lola pines away for her little dog that ran away, Sheba, but that longing is about more than the dog herself, but about the dreams and the life she thought was possible for her and Doc. Both are frustrated and accepting of their current roles in life but cognizant that things didn't quite work out the way they hoped. Doc dropped out of medical school to marry Lola and is now stuck as a chiropractor, which is---Ah, ah, I'm not gonna badmouth that profession. I had a great experience years ago when I screwed up my back!

Into this environment comes a young boarder Lola interviews, played by Terry Moore (who was herself nominated for Best supporting Actress). At first, Doc wants no part of anyone renting part of the house, but when he sees Moore's college student, Marie, he suddenly changes his mind. Funny how it works like that, eh, guys? If you're not familiar with Moore, three words come to mind: VA, VA, and VOOM.

"For the last time, under NO circumstances will I allow a boarder in my hou--Oh, hello, were you the one inquiring about the room?

What follows is a slowly unfurling tale of repression, remorse, and regret (I wasn't sure I'd come up with a third one there!) as Doc's vision of Marie as a symbol of purity is altered by the fact that she actually wants to spend time with boys. In fairness to Doc, who seems like a real fuddy duddy with major issues of his own (which we know is indeed the case), the first guy Marie dates is "Turk" (Richard Jaeckel). If some dude calling himself Turk showed up in my house in proximity to my daughter or even anyone reasonably close to me, I'd toss him off the premises faster than you could say "Al Bundy." In Doc's case, this whole scenario is a giant trigger warning.

Come Back, Little Sheba is an often uncomfortable but compelling exploration of broken dreams and the struggle of alcoholism. It's well acted and not too stagy despite its origins. I do find the ending unsatisfying after what precedes it, but, hey, it was 1952, and what we see is kind of par for the course.

Just another night at home, getting ready to listen to Amos 'N' Andy

We aren't just here to talk about the film, though. We are here to talk about Shirley Booth. It's hard for a modern-day fan of olden-day TV like me to separate this performance from Hazel--evident from my dumb jokes earlier--but she is likable and tender in this role. There are similarities with her later persona--her chattiness, for one--but Lola lacks the guile and gusto of Hazel Burke. We feel for her when she expresses doubts that she was ever good enough for Doc. It's hard to imagine the Baxters' no-nonsense maid being so reflective.

Booth's naïve, sad performance is a revelation. At the time, it would have been no surprise, as she had won several Tonys, including one for this very role! But it's a great reminder today to anyone who knows her as the confident, do-it-all meddling maid that Shirley Booth was capable of acting with great dimension and powerful honesty.

Kidding aside, it's an Oscar-worthy performance

Will we see anything like this in Hazel: The Early Years? Perhaps not, but we should have some fun nevertheless. Just keep in mind, as we laugh at her exploits with the likes of Mr. Griffin, that Shirley Booth was sooo much more than Hazel Burke. That said...human condition, schmuman condition! Let's gear up for season 1 of Hazel!


michael hebeters said...

Now lets fast forward "Medium Well Done" Jay Sandrich Dee Caruso,
Gerald Gardner 6 November 1969
Mrs. Muir invites a touring medium (Shirley Booth) to the cottage to get a story. The medium then holds a seance to get rid of the captain's ghost. The captain talks of his Spectral Fraternity.

Rick Brooks said...

Great find! I will check this out...